Tara McGowan spent the last election cycle guiding the digital outreach and advertising for Priorities USA, a leading political action committee or PAC supporting Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House.The following was adapted from a speech delivered by the author to the AAPC Pollie Awards Conference in Huntington Beach, CA last month. She now heads Creative Strategy Lab as founder and CEO and looks to carry her passions for both politics and digital media into what you might call “Part IV.” -Ed.
You know those events in your life that you can point to on demand- the ones that upend your belief system or challenge your perception of how things should be – the moments when something you never knew you needed suddenly comes into clear focus – like the moment you first realize you’re in love, or when you have an experience that shifts your understanding of yourself or the world around you. I want to tell you about one of those moments from my life.
It was early February 2008 and I was lying on the floor of an edit room in one of the many hallowed halls of 60 Minutes offices on West 57th in Manhattan. I had just transitioned to the team full-time after a year of interning and was still a few months shy of my college graduation. It was 3 in the morning, maybe 4. I was with a small team of producers and editors all working furiously to keep up with the script edits our boss was still making down the hall. The story we were working on was one that was worth staying up all night for. It was the first segment the program dedicated entirely to then-Senator Barack Obama’s extraordinary run for president. The primary contest was in full swing following his historic win in the Iowa caucus then Hillary’s comeback in New Hampshire– and we were on an impossible deadline.
On the floor of that edit suite, I was eating cold pizza, drinking a beer and scanning through hours of footage of Senator Obama’s speeches and rallies across the country, choosing close up shots of people’s faces in the crowds, their smiles, their tears, the unmistakable expression of hope in so many of their eyes. I found myself moved to tears as I watched the reels and knew somehow that it wasn’t the exhaustion, or even the frenetic and contagious energy of the team I was working alongside that moved me.
That night, the senior producer I was working with on the piece told me that he thought I had what it took to be a great producer one day because of the passion and dedication I brought to my work. He told me I had an instinct for story and a drive to get the story right – evidenced by my eagerness to pull all-nighters with the team and to always ask what more I could do, offering ideas and solutions when the rest of the team was burned out.
I was flattered and humbled by the compliment, especially coming from someone I so respected and looked up to in an industry I had dreamed for years of working in, but as I look back on that night today, I’m convinced that what my producer was perceiving in me was not just a strong work ethic or passion for storytelling- both of which I still take pride in- but a shift that was occurring within me right then that would upend my world and shape the rest of my life.
You know what shift I’m talking about, right? I know you must, because I know so many of you in this very room have a story just like this one to tell. It’s the story of the moment you realized you weren’t ever going to be that journalist or that lawyer or that stay-at-home parent. It’s the moment you felt a connection with a candidate that ran so deep you dropped everything in your life to help them succeed. It’s the moment you collapse on your bed after an 18-hour day and smile to yourself because you love the work you do, you believe in it and it makes you feel a part of something bigger than yourself every single day. You know what happens next in my story because it happened to you.
Now I know you must be asking yourself right about now – what in the world does this have to do with the role of digital in politics? And I promise you, I’m getting there.
If we fast forward from that night in New York, you would see me quit my job at 60 Minutes, pack up my Brooklyn apartment, move to Washington DC without a clue what I would do when I got there, land a job as a press secretary in the Senate – by chance – where you would then see me defeated daily by an archaic system and lack of imagination for how we engage people to participate in a process that was designed to work for them. You would watch me pick up and move again- this time to Chicago- to help the candidate-turned-President who had inspired me to have the audacity to hope – win re-election. You would watch my love for and experience telling stories evolve into an unexpected career making political ads that would live on YouTube and Facebook. You would watch me build a digital-first political organization in California, and then another focused on climate change advocacy in New York.
And then, finally, in 2015, you would watch me land the biggest job of my life running one of the largest digital programs in the history of electoral politics to help elect another candidate who I would drop anything and everything to work for.
As Digital Director of Priorities, the super PAC that supported Hillary Clinton’s run for president last year, I ran a $42 million dollar digital persuasion program. I managed a team of 7 in-house strategists and creative producers, and over 15 consultants responsible for media planning, execution and measurement. And as you now know, I don’t have a formal background in marketing- I’m a storyteller, a video producer, a millennial who grew up online and someone who pours everything into my work because it still never feels like work- and yet even as new as digital still is to political campaigns in the greater scheme of things, I found myself in way over my head. And so the responsibility I felt for every dollar I was charged with spending weighed on me like a bag of bricks and I lost more sleep than any of us ever make up for during those 18 months on the job.
I lost sleep because I was committed to running the best damn program I could run and that meant first, I needed to understand what the best digital program could look like at that kind of scale. It meant listening to my instincts, but also having a great deal of humility about what I did not know and putting a great deal of trust in others to help me figure it out.
As many of you in this audience know too well – and others of you here might not care to know – (and hopefully we’ll get to that) – digital is a really complicated industry. There are countless platforms and ad unit types and KPIs to wrap your mind around- and many of them evolve and change multiple times a year. Programmatic networks are black boxes, auctions are opaque and media plans can be mind-numbingly complicated- and please- if you can find anyone who can say with certainty which metrics matter most when running a persuasion program online, send them my way. Better yet, ask three people in this very room and let me know if you don’t hear three different responses. So no, it’s not an easy industry to learn over night.
And then, beyond even the multitude of networks, platforms and tactics you can deploy online for any given objective are what I call the cultural hurdles digital strategists like myself often face on campaigns.
I know most of you have heard this all before and some of you might roll your eyes right about now but it still deserves to be said. Digital hasn’t always received the warmest reception at the senior strategy table, and has had to fight incredibly hard to prove itself to campaign managers and even some of the consultants in this very room- as the powerful vehicle for reaching, persuading and mobilizing voters it can be. The double standard digital has been met with in campaigns to prove it’s efficacy beyond dollars raised or data collected has had a truly unfortunate and persistent impact on our ability to leverage it in the most cutting edge ways.
An over-emphasis of the value targeting and tech stacks by digital consultants fighting for budget have had the unfortunate consequence of keeping digital out of high-level conversations about message, messenger and creative, though one would argue you should never have one without the other. Where’s the value in being able to target a modeled universe of voters if you’re spending millions of dollars to reach them with the wrong message cut for the wrong medium? Then there are the media consultants who have been working in campaigns far longer than I have who refuse to educate themselves about digital or even ask questions when a digital director reports to them on their program, keeping us each in our own separate silos, and stifling our ability to experiment, to innovate and move the needle together.
I was lucky that for the most part this was not my experience at Priorities by the end– I was brought into the strategic conversations and I had an enviable position of fighting for my budget that could never be confused with the wrong incentives. I didn’t stand to make money off of my program, only to have an impact on the election and that allowed me to build trust with the more senior strategists driving decisions. My team built an incredible persuasion program that leveraged digital-first videos, ads and posts that we produced specifically for the platforms voters would find them on. We built a digital persuasion model off of survey results from a voter-file matched online panel that tested ads we produced ourselves to refine and narrow our universe. We ran dozens and dozens of tests and experiments to begin to scratch the surface on what is a strong ROI for various platforms and objectives. We were of course still met with obstacles and were only allocated a third of the PAC’s total media budget in the end, but digital was respected, I was trusted and empowered to make decisions, and our impact was far greater than it would have been without a digital program.
But that’s not the story I came to tell today- because as everyone who has ever lost a campaign knows all too well, there’s usually only enough light to shine on the ones who won, and maybe that’s how it should be.
The story I wanted to tell is about why we do this work, how we do this work and where we go from here because if I can find a silver lining in the results of this past election, it is that when you’re down and out, when you’ve lost after giving your everything, you’re forced to look inward, to remind yourself how and why you do this work, and to commit yourself to doing it better, with more humility and more creativity.
That very same night I was lying on the edit suite floor in 2008, hundreds of young people just like me – kids, really- who grew up understanding the world and politics through a lens of 9/11, weapons of mass destruction and two horrific wars were sprawled out across their own field office floors using their passion and their understanding of the internet and social media to build a movement across the country that would elect a transformative president.
Democrats were the original digital innovators in electoral politics. We were the first to raise millions of dollars online, the ones to crack first party targeting and the party to build a U.S. Digital Service in the federal government. And though I do not believe we ever really stopped innovating entirely, I do think that the underdogs in 2016 had a stronger incentive to roll up their sleeves, to trust the digital strategists at the table – and to throw more ideas at the wall to see what which might move the needle- even if some of those ideas were ones we had already pioneered back in 2012.
But back to the silver lining- for me it’s that the progressive movement and Democrats are once again the underdogs, and now those young “kids” from 2008 and 2012- the “internet people” as one of my favorite “old media” consultants calls us, well we’re not kids anymore. And if we’re serious about running winning campaigns, digital will no longer have just one seat at the table in 2018, or a budget line that pales in comparison to television – not if we want to win. So we all have a role to play in ensuring this happens, in working together and reminding ourselves of how and why we got into this work, how privileged we all are to do it, and the responsibility we each have to get the story right.